With a doctorate in psychology and a banjo, Phil Cartwright has covered a lot of territory.
Studying and teaching and administrating, both for himself and his wife, Bowling Green State University
President Carol Cartwright, has had them traipsing through campuses from London to Honolulu.
And everywhere he goes, Cartwright has played traditional jazz. It could be on a boat during a regatta or
accompanying a dancing elephant during a Republican convention or at a music festival in Europe or in
numerous big city dives. Usually he’s part of a trio, or quintet, or at most the 10-piece Night Owls.
This weekend when Cartwright is featured soloist with the Bowling Green Community Band at two concerts it
will be the first time in his 50-year career that he’s played with such a large ensemble. Cartwright and
the 70-horn strong ensemble will perform Saturday at 3 p.m. at Heritage Days at the Wood County
Historical Museum and Sunday at 7 p.m. in Bowling Green City Park. Cartwright will be featured with the
full band on "Russian Rag," based on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "Prelude in C-sharp
minor" in an arrangement by Bruce Corrigan, BG’s junior high band director. "It’s a very
ambitious piece," Cartwright noted. He’ll also play and sing two numbers with a small band.
Ray Heitger, a clarinetist from Toledo, has played with the self-taught musician recently and knew him by
reputation for a long time before that. He said Cartwright’s one of the best in the business. "He
knows the role of the banjo and does it well." That means keeping the rhythm steady and stroking
out the right harmonies.
Though Cartwright, 72, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, one of the hotbeds of traditional jazz, his
first exposure to music was through his father, a country and western musician.
His father played guitar as well a little banjo and fiddle. "That guitar got him through the
Depression," Cartwright said.
In high school, Cartwright started playing folk music on banjo. Then he went to the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and met a fellow student who wanted to start a Dixieland band. He
recruited Cartwright as the banjo player. He could keep the rhythm and soon started mastering the more
complex harmonies of jazz tunes. Cartwright’s been at it ever since.
His focus is on the jazz played in the 1920s, though he has songs written earlier, and occasionally
ventures into a more swing style.
The instrument he plays is the four-string tenor banjo, a different variety than the more common
five-string used in bluegrass and country music.
He also sings. Cartwright credits his ability to get gigs to his knowledge of the lyrics to many tunes.
He has a list of about 240 that he’s ready to play, and he’s familiar with many more.
Playing jobs that last from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., horn players get tired, he said, and his singing provides
them with needed respite.
One of those marathon jobs was at a club in Chicago in the early 1960s when his combo alternated sets
with a band of veterans of the African-American jazz scene. They included Louis Armstrong’s second wife
and collaborator Lil Hardin and veteran saxophonist Franz Jackson.
"That was a great experience," Cartwright said. The elder musicians took the youngsters under
their wing, letting them sit in and even writing a song for them. "They were so kind to us smart
alecky white guys," Cartwright said.
Though the young players were cocky at first, playing with the veterans was "a great
His longest association was with the Tarnished Six, in State College, Pa., from 1967 to 1988.
Finding musicians to play with, Cartwright said, isn’t hard "if you talk the right code." When
the Cartwrights moved to London for a year, he went ahead to get their home ready. He answered a
newspaper advertisement for a banjo for sale – he now owns a dozen, including a 1915-vintage instrument
he’ll play this weekend. The banjo for sale wasn’t any good, but the seller invited him to sit in with
his band. Turns out the seller wasn’t very good either, and wanted to quit, so Cartwright landed a job.
When it was announced in 1994 that Carol Cartwright would be the new president of Kent State University,
her husband started getting calls from Cleveland area musicians before they’d even left San Francisco,
where they’d been living.
In between the Dixie gigs, Cartwright has found time to have a flourishing academic career, first in
educational psychology and then in information technology. He is a professor emeritus at the University
of California Davis and formerly was a dean of information technology at the library at the Northeastern
Ohio Universities College of Medicine.
He’s brought his computer savvy and love of traditional jazz together in a database that includes entries
for every song in his music and record collection. That includes 1,500 LPs, about 1,200 CDs, 1,500
pieces of sheet music, about 80 songbooks and 35 fake books, standard musical references. The database
has grown to 54,000 entries with 20,000 unique song titles.
That gives Cartwright plenty of old songs to learn.
Those less familiar tunes include the "Red Rose Rag" and "When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the
Rosary," which he’ll play with the combo at the concert band concert.
Local listeners will also have a chance to hear him play July 25 in Pemberville with the 10-piece Night